Feb 14, 2020

Axios Navigate

By Joann Muller
Joann Muller

Hello from Phoenix, the self-driving capital of America! After today I'm taking some time off to explore Arizona, so I'll be back in your inbox in two weeks.

Today's newsletter is 1,742 words, a 7-minute read. Let's dive in....

1 big thing: Cities' transportation tunnel vision

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Many cities are experimenting with innovative transportation ideas like scooters or autonomous shuttles, but their efforts are often too isolated or too small to deliver meaningful results, according to transportation experts.

Why it matters: Moving people and goods more efficiently is an urgent priority for many cities, which are grappling with issues like congestion, air pollution and accessibility while trying to raise money for necessary upgrades.

The big picture: About 4 billion people live in urban areas today, and by 2050, cities will be home to two-thirds of the world’s population.

What's needed: To adapt quickly to these changing demographics, cities should adopt a bird's-eye view of their mobility landscape — treating it as a system of systems — rather than continuing to experiment with small-scale pilots, according to a new report from the World Economic Forum and Deloitte.

  • With that approach, per the report, city leaders can adjust schedules, stops, vehicle types and routing to benefit citizens, while optimizing efficiency for the city as a whole.
  • By pulling back the lens, cities can also tap into the needs of neighboring municipalities, as well as area businesses, nonprofits and other institutions to orchestrate more public and private funding sources.
  • WEF calls it a seamless integrated mobility system, but admits implementing it will be hard.

Urban transportation, like politics, is local. What works in one city doesn't necessarily work in another.

  • But WEF studied 10 global cities and identified some common themes to help planners fast-track large-scale mobility systems.
  • The report isn't a prescription, but more like "a recipe book" that cities can consult to come up with their own smorgasbord of solutions, says Michelle Avary, WEF's head of automotive and autonomous mobility.
  • "Every city has to sit down and prioritize what is important to them. 80% might be similar, but that 20% matters a lot for each city. "

Some examples:

  • Singapore put a limit on the number of cars allowed on the road and made it prohibitively expensive to buy a new one. The result: 80% of residents use public transit.
  • Los Angeles created a new data-sharing format to collect and share information with mobility service companies, though it faces pressure to protect personal privacy.
  • London was among the first cities to launch digital ticketing and contactless payment systems, making free data available to app developers who in turn created transportation-related tools used by 40% of the population.

Yes, but: Most innovations in transportation are based on technology to improve an individual's journey, rather than offer a systemic solution.

  • One exception is Remix, a startup that is developing a software platform to help cities understand and plan their transportation networks.
  • It started in San Francisco and now works with more than 325 cities and transit agencies worldwide.

Where it stands: As the case studies show, pioneering cities are beginning to think more strategically, says Scott Corwin, leader of the global future of mobility practice at Deloitte.

  • "We're not just doing pilots for the sake of pilots anymore. We're way past that. I think the next wave of this is we’re looking for things that can scale."

What to watch: The mayor of Paris wants to create a "15-minute city" — a collection of mostly car-free neighborhoods where residents can get to work, home or anywhere else within 15 minutes.

2. Driving's people problem

Waymo's self-driving minivans. Photo: Courtesy of Waymo

This week during several automated driving demonstrations in Arizona I was reminded why we should all hope self-driving technology is ready soon.

Why it matters: Self-driving cars don't get drunk, tired, distracted — or do things that are just plain stupid — behaviors I saw in spades on the roads in and around Phoenix and Tuscon.

Details: Not five minutes into a Waymo One ride (with a backup safety driver) in Chandler, a driver blasted through a red light and T-boned another car just ahead of me.

  • Neither driver was seriously hurt, but both cars sustained heavy damage.
  • Earlier in the week, I was riding in a TuSimple automated semi-truck on I-10, a busy freight corridor. (A backup driver and engineer were up front.)
  • Most of the drive was unremarkable, but then a car limping along the shoulder decided to pull slowly into the lane of traffic moving at 65 mph.
  • TuSimple's automated system rightly detected the potential problem and told the safety driver to take over.
  • Later, a camper towing a Jeep drifted into the semi-truck's lane while passing and TuSimple's backup driver opted to take control herself, as a safety precaution.

Road rage is a different problem, for which there might not be a solution until all cars are driven by robots.

Driving the news: A disgruntled former Waymo safety driver was arrested this week and charged with aggravated assault and reckless driving for allegedly trying to cause a crash with Waymo vehicles.

  • Police say the man deliberately cut in front of a manually operated Waymo vehicle, slamming the brakes, causing Waymo's safety driver to rear end his car. Her injuries required hospitalization.

One reassuring incident: A bicyclist told me in a Tweet message about a near-miss he had with an unoccupied driverless Waymo vehicle. He thought the vehicle making a left turn was going to strike him as he rode through the intersection.

  • I investigated with Waymo, which later shared a video of the moment so that I could see how the car recorded it.
  • The car spotted the cyclist a full block away and tracked its movement continually, slowing to 6 mph as it approached the intersection to make the left turn.
  • Importantly, the computer created a red "digital fence" across the intersection, telling the car not to proceed until the cyclist had cleared its path. Then the fence disappeared and the car completed the turn.
  • If everyone could see what the car's computer saw, and how it adjusted its behavior, they'd be more comfortable with the idea of self-driving technology.

The bottom line: 36,560 people died in highway accidents in 2018. The vast majority of those accidents were caused by human behavior.

3. AV bill still faces bumpy road

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

Lawmakers working to speed a federal framework for autonomous vehicles into law face a key obstacle that stymied previous attempts: who gets sued in collisions.

  • As Margaret Harding McGill and I wrote this week, trial lawyers, a powerful lobby, want key questions on liability in a driverless world answered before legislation advances.

Driving the news: A House panel this week heard testimony from safety advocates and industry groups trying to shape laws that would govern the adoption of self-driving cars on U.S. roads.

Context: Previous attempts to pass self-driving legislation stalled in 2018 and 2019 as lawmakers clashed over what consumer and legal protections should be included.

  • Based on Tuesday's hearing, it looks like many of the same sticking points remain, reports The Verge.
  • The auto and tech industries want more leeway to launch AVs without steering wheels and other human controls.
  • Trial lawyers want manufacturers to shoulder liability as the "drivers" in collisions, and they want Congress to prohibit forced arbitration so that consumers could sue in court.

What they're saying: The latest effort faces tough odds to win approval before the end of 2020, according to Reuters.

Go deeper: Self-driving vehicle law hits a speed bump

4. Electric skateboards are everywhere

Canoo's electric skateboard will be the basis for future Hyundai and Kia vehicles. Photo: Courtesy of Canoo

Hyundai and Kia announced this week that they will develop future vehicles using electric skateboard technology developed by startup Canoo.

Why it matters: It's the first big partnership for Canoo, a 2-year-old EV company founded by former BMW executives who fled Faraday Future.

The big picture: Big automakers like GM, as well as startups like Rivian and Arrival, are developing flexible electric skateboard architectures that can be used for everything from compact cars to delivery trucks.

  • The powertrain, batteries and suspension are packaged in a flat chassis that can be stretched or squeezed to support different types of vehicles.
  • At a recent event, GM president Mark Reuss compared its flexible EV architecture to an ice cube tray: “You can put in as much water to make as many cubes as you need."

Of note: The deal with Canoo is also the latest in a string of interesting moves by Hyundai, which plans to invest $52.7 billion in R&D and future mobility by 2025.

5. Driving the conversation

Jettison: Bombardier Speeds Dismemberment with A220 Deal, Other Talks (Sandrine Rastello and Paula Sambo — Bloomberg)

  • The big picture: The Canadian manufacturer, which once made everything from snowmobiles to commercial jets, is poised to become a shadow of its former self as it dumps assets to reduce debt.

Fuel cell power: Tesla Cybertruck gets new electric rival: Meet Nikola's hydrogen Badger pickup (Alan Ohnsman — Forbes)

  • Why it matters: Its fuel cell powertrain is a new twist in the exploding market for electric pickup trucks. Nikola aims to double the 300-mile range of Tesla's Cybertruck using a combination of batteries and the hydrogen fuel cell system it developed for long-haul semis.

Outlook: Uber sees profit by end of 2020, but still expects full-year loss (Tina Bellon and Munsif Vengattil — Reuters)

  • Why it matters: CEO Dara Khosrowshahi told investors the ride-hailing company would cut costs, boost customer loyalty and accelerate growth at Uber Eats to turn profitable a year earlier than forecast.
6. What I'm driving

2020 Hyundai Sonata. Photo: Courtesy of Hyundai

This week I'm driving the 2020 Hyundai Sonata, a car that purports to park itself.

Reality check: The heavily advertised "Smaht Pahk" feature has limited capability. Sure, it can pull itself head-on into a tight parking space and back out too, but that's about it.

How it works: A driver outside the vehicle uses the key fob to lock the car, hit the remote start button (although the car is already running), then hit a third button to drive forward into the parking space.

  • To pull out, it's basically the same process.
  • Yes, but: The driver must first align the car with the parking space; it doesn't position itself.
  • It backs out straight, too, which means users are likely blocking other cars until they get in and drive away.

For the record: Tesla's Summon self-parking feature allows users to push a button and the car will back itself out of the space and come to the driver.

My thought bubble: Hyundai's Remote Smart Parking Assist technology would be useful in an urban parking garage or at my neighborhood Kroger, where the spaces are especially tight and it's easy to get blocked in.

  • But I don't think I'd pay a lot extra for it.
  • Luckily, the Sonata is packed with technology for a value price.
  • The entry-level SE starts at $23,400 and includes standard driver-assistance features like adaptive cruise control, lane-keeping assist and emergency-stopping assist.
  • The premium Sonata Limited, which includes the parking assist technology, costs $33,300 and also lets you use your smartphone as a digital key to unlock, start and drive the car without a physical key.

The bottom line: The sensors that enable Hyundai's driver-assistance features are already on the car. Why not put them to work as parking valets too?

Joann Muller